This is part 13 of 16 in the series “The Bible Is…“
“Apocalypse” is a common term in our culture today, but has taken on a connotation somewhat tangential to its original meaning. The word comes from Greek, apokalypsis, and also survives in English from the equivalent Latin word – revelation. Apocalyptic literature deals with revelations, unveilings, dramatic pictures of times yet to come. In the Bible, an apocalypse, specifically, is a text or passage that looks ahead to a special act of divine self-revelation when God makes himself known in a dramatic new way. All that pop-culture stuff about the end of the world and catastrophic destruction sometimes accompanies biblical apocalyptic literature, but not always. Thus when the Bible reader speaks of a (or the) Apocalypse, God’s self-revelation should be at the forefront, and global devastation only insofar as the text includes it.
Unsurprisingly, then, the Bible has a lot of apocalyptic literature within its pages. Most of the Old Testament prophetic books have apocalyptic material, looking ahead to “the day of the Lord” and the arrival of the Messiah. The Gospels, and even some of the Epistles, contain references to the return of Christ in glory as one last great apocalypse. Some of the Bible’s most famous apocalyptic passages are found in the books of Zechariah, Ezekiel, the first three Gospels, and 1 Thessalonians. But the two books that have the lengthiest apocalyptic passages are Daniel and Revelation.
The book of Daniel is one of the newest parts of the Hebrew Old Testament, technically counted among “the writings” rather than “the prophets” in the Jewish canon, but accounted as a “major prophet” in Christian tradition. The book centers on Daniel, a Jewish wise man serving the non-Jewish authorities (Kings Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus) during the Judean exile. The first half of the book contains some famous stories – Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a giant statue, Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lion’s den. On one level these stories are heroic examples of steadfast faith in the face of deadly persecution; on another level they are lived-out pictures of the Christ who was yet to come. Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and a vision in these early chapters which Daniel interprets as prophetic, foretelling over 400 years of history. The second half of the book is less well-known because of its apocalyptic nature. Daniel has a series of visions in the final 6 chapters which are usually delivered or interpreted by Archangels Gabriel and Michael. A prominent image in the various dreams and visions throughout the book is the number 4 (four parts of a statue, four beasts devouring each other) representing four empires before God’s anointed one (or Christ) arrives: the Babylonians, the Persians and Medes, the Macedonian Greeks, and the Romans. The visions are detailed and complex, making them difficult for the reader to understand, but Christians have long seen the culmination of these visions in the person of Jesus Christ and his death on the Cross, complete with a 490-year countdown from Daniel’s dream to the crucifixion of Christ!
The book of the Revelation of Saint John is similarly complicated to read and understand. It begins and ends as an epistle, but the bulk of its contents are apocalyptic. Disagreement on its meaning and interpretation goes all the way back to the Early Church, which has resulted in its frequent neglect in church lectionaries in many traditions for a thousand years. The first three chapters are fairly straight-forward, containing visions of the risen and eternal Christ speaking to John and dictating letters to seven churches – probably the ones that that John oversaw as Apostle or Bishop. Beginning in chapter 4, however, are visions of “things that will take place”, and interpreters have been in disagreement since at least the 4th century as to how much of what follows has since taken place, and how much of it is still in our future. Various Protestant movements starting in the 19th century churned up further controversy and confusion regarding the meaning of this book, making it all the more difficult for the modern reader to know what to believe about it. The book of the Revelation contains lengthy depictions of judgment in various images: angels blowing trumpets, pouring out bowls of wrath, horsemen and locusts rampaging the earth, the heavens falling, battle with an angry and powerful serpent or dragon. Interspersed throughout are also glorious pictures of peace and worship: saints in white robes, Jesus as a lamb on a throne, the whole company of heaven singing in endless praise, the Church as a city or bride descending to the earth, a river and trees of life. Elements of these apocalyptic vision are likely futurist, depicting the return of Christ in glory, the final victory over Satan on the day of judgment, and the unending life of peace in the new heavens and earth. Elements of these visions also must be understood spiritually – the battle against the demonic powers is ongoing in the life of every Christian, and God’s chastening and judgment is constantly felt and seen in the world in various and sundry ways all across history.
Rather than forming complex theories of the End Times based on controversial interpretations of the various apocalyptic writings, the Bible reader is better off embracing the mysteries of these complicated visions. There is much to glean from them, and good study, preaching, and teaching, can unlock many of these difficult texts. But sometimes it must be admitted that God has not made all details of the future clear, and we should simply rejoice in the knowledge that God knows how all things will be resolved, even if we don’t understand it all. The reader must be wary of the populist teachings and arguments over premillenialism, postmillenialism, the rapture, the anti-christ, and world events as “signs of the times.” Such theories verge on the conspiratorial, and have been cropping up in many different forms throughout Christian history; the Bible reader must not allow such fads to color one’s understanding of the Bible itself.